Leaflets in Hand: Divine Performing Arts at Durham Performing Arts Center
by Kate Dobbs Ariail*
December 28, 2008, Durham, NC: You could make an argument that all art has something of propaganda to it — that it tries to win you over to its reality. But the obverse does not hold true: all propaganda is not artful. This was clearly demonstrated by a group called Divine Performing Arts, presented by the North Carolina Falun Dafa Association, at the Durham Performing Arts Center. While the multi-act program included some enjoyable dances, it was less a presentation of artistry than a lengthy exercise in proselytizing, thinly disguised as a celebration of traditional Chinese arts.
Even a passing acquaintance with pre-1948 Chinese cultures would have led one to expect wonderful things from this show. But the "divine" in the group's name has to do with its promotion of what it calls its (traditional Chinese) spiritual values —as used by DPA, "divine" is not an adjective describing the quality of the work. If DPA had been straightforward about its intent, the jingoistic mediocrity of its program might have been less offensive. If it had been clear that the purpose of this event was to promote the practice of Falun Gong, or Falun Dafa as it is also called, one would not have been expecting an exquisite aesthetic experience, and one would have chosen to attend or not based on interest in that practice —or an interest in seeing the current Chinese government castigated. Despite DPA's disingenuous disavowals, there is clearly a political motive behind the organization's programming (see the Philadelphia Inquirer preview [inactive 10/09] for a fuller discussion). Again, this is not necessarily a bad thing, as all the worst tendencies of the Chinese government seem to have been brought to bear on Falun Gong practitioners living in China.
What was bad was the absence of the beauty, subtlety and wisdom that characterize the ancient arts of China, and, for that matter, much of its contemporary art. The program included three vocalists, accompanied by a pianist. The songs were dreadful, both in their lyrics and musically, gooey with treacly sentiment and bristling with repellent aphorisms ("the theory of atheism puts humanity at risk"); and they fully exposed the weaknesses of the sound system. Apparently DPA sometimes tours its three companies with a small orchestra; here the music other than the vocal solos was all recorded.
The troupe appearing in Durham included more than forty performers, mostly dancers who sometimes doubled as drummers. The two or three lead dancers in each piece were quite talented; all were pleasant to watch. Generally, the choreography for many of the dances was coarse and unsophisticated, although the ethnic and village dances were much better. Being actually traditional, they used large numbers of dancers to create pleasing rhythmic patterns. Perhaps the worst aspect of the show was the changing projected landscapes filling the back wall. Their low visual quality — over-enlarged and garishly colored into jarring dissonance with the dancers' costumes — was painful throughout, and an incredible disservice to their sources in nature and art. You probably don't want to know about the tiny animated figures whisking around in them, or about the clumsy transition between virtual and real figures at the horizon line. With the two emcees cutting in between each act, the show was like being caught in a mash-up of an old Western Electric educational filmstrip and a Disney Special: neither beautiful nor particularly edifying.
*For a letter to the editor concerning this review, click here.
Performing Arts" (DPA) to Debut
There's always a lull in cultural activities in late December and early January, but this year, a major event occurs on December 28, in Durham's new Performing Arts Center, when, for the first time east of Greensboro, a spectacular show of Chinese art and culture makes its regional debut. "Divine Performing Arts," the US-based company's name and also the program's title, offers traditional and classical Chinese dance and music, enhanced by spectacular costumes. Greensboro and Charlotte have hosted DPA companies, and now it's Durham's turn, facilitated by the recent opening of the largest theatre in the state. There's more than a little irony in the DPA appearing at the DPac, but the evening promises to be spectacular, and it may well serve to introduce a large swath of arts enthusiasts to Durham's new showplace.
The troupe that plays in Durham will be coming here from Miami, the first stop on its tour. Like the Rockettes on tour, there are several traveling ensembles — three, to be specific. About 60 people form the company that will perform here — dancers, mostly, plus singers and a Chinese instrument player, augmented for much of the show by recorded music. (This is because Durham is a one-night stand, in relatively unproven territory; we trust the new center's sound system will be up to the show's demands.)
DPA's press releases tell us that, "Inspired by the spirit of an ancient culture, 'Divine Performing Arts' brings to life classical Chinese dance and music in a gloriously colorful and exhilarating show. With a seasoned company of dancers, singers, and musicians, the New York-based Divine Performing Arts comes to the Triangle this holiday season.... Its masterful choreography and graceful routines range from grand classical processions to ethnic and folk dances, with gorgeously costumed dancers moving in stunning synchronized patterns. Its themes are drawn from the pages of history as well as our world today. State-of-the-art backdrops conjure celestial palaces and pastoral vistas, while groundbreaking music combines the best of Chinese and Western composition. Taking inspiration from ancient heroic legends and modern courageous tales, the breathtaking beauty of Divine Performing Arts is not to be missed."
Our region's Chinese community is likely to turn out in force, but fans of world music and dance of all persuasions will surely find a great deal to enchant and admire, much as North Carolinians did, for the better part of a generation, in the heyday of the Friends of the College series, which brought folk and national companies from around the world to Raleigh.
The timing of this year's visit, on December 28, may be an improvement for the company, given that last season's visits were on December 19-20 (in Charlotte) and December 23 (in Greensboro).
For more information, an article by M. Manyu, "Bringing Timeless Culture to Life," is recommended, although this may well have been generated by an employee or agent of the company. With that caveat, see http://www.zvents.com/user/show/Lotus_Flower. And a companion article on the music heard in the show, by Maria Chow, is on page 7 of a handsomely illustrated and informative booklet (from a previous season) at http://www.nycproject.com/~levi/dpa/download/newspaper/CNYS-Special-Edition-CS2-v4-online.pdf [inactive 1/09].
Details: Sunday December 28
Compiled by John W. Lambert